LeBron James: A media company with a PR problem

LeBron James' famous Nike adWe’re all media companies these days. Technology has given us that. It’s the “Great Horizontal” as tagged by Jay Rosen, that hyperconnected universe of individual publishers and broadcasters.

Famous people have taken notice and find that being their own media company has its benefits. Remember how Ashton Kutcher became the first celebrity to hit a million followers on Twitter in 2009? That’s a drop in the bucket these days. Ashton found that he could “talk” directly to his fans with Twitter, and he’s been very smart about it. Athletes, politicians, singers, musicians, artists, poets, authors, anybody can take advantage of the tools of personal media to get their word out, for free.

But as traditional media companies can tell you, there are certain responsibilities that come with the power to address a BIG group of people, because intentions don’t communicate, only behavior. This is especially true when people can react to that behavior and share it with everybody else. It may be easier to protect the stages of big media, but that begins with a very basic understanding about that stage’s responsibilities within the bigger picture in order to keep people coming to watch your production. Being a media company is a responsibility before it is a mouthpiece, because the audience is the one who makes the decision whether to accept the message or not.

This is why most media companies specialize in public relations. Hell, it’s the flip side of the coin of journalism, and we all know that’s true. We’re all selling something, be it a story, a point-of-view or — and perhaps especially — ourselves.

As athletes go, LeBron James is a pretty strong brand, but he has a serious personal image problem. He’s got natural gifts that we’ve never seen before in one package, and that has been hyped since he was a boy. Unfortunately, his image doesn’t match his behavior, and rather than work on that, James continues to make one foolish PR mistake after another.

There was promising championships for Cleveland and not delivering. There was “the decision,” which was so wrong in so many ways. There was the big stage presentation where he was “introduced” in Miami, sort of a celebration before the victory. There was the anticipointment generated by promising “not five, not six, not seven…” championships. What a boneheaded thing to say. He’s referred to himself as “King James” in text messages. Now there’s the haughty and condescending snub of basketball fans who had the temerity to criticize him during the NBA Finals.

“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.”

He’s about to enter unchartered waters in terms of forever screwing up the gifts he’s been given, and no course correction is going to help him. That’s because Life is the author of character, and in personal media — when it’s just you — you can’t turn to a “team LeBron member” for advice before opening your mouth. It’s either in you to say the right thing, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, don’t worry. Life will teach you, but only if you have a teachable spirit. You can’t play a role, read a book or take a course. Humility is its doorway, and that’s buried deep within the human soul.

As a huge fan of the Dallas Mavericks, I’ve watched as the national sports media has had a field day with James’ performance, while the superior basketball team picked apart the individual talents of the Miami Heat. Somebody wrote that James can’t experience failure, because he doesn’t know what it is. That’s an apt description of a character defect so enormous that it spills out into his efforts to control the message.

I teach my students that it’s all about your personal brand, and that to behave ethically these days demands a vast understanding of the big picture and their role within it. That includes responsibilities. There is no set of rules to memorize, absent, perhaps, the Golden Rule, that perfectly fits every situation, but we must always remember that everybody’s watching.

There are both benefits and opportunities in the Great Horizontal, but perhaps the most important thing is this: you simply cannot hide your real self, if you wish to play within this realm. There are no failures of talent, only character. My advice to LeBron is to work on that; the rest will happen automatically.

Thanks to Twitter follower TJ (@TJ2016) for the inspiration for this piece.

The sports press says so, and that’s all that matters

Dirk Nowitzki at the free throw lineJournalism thinkers spend a lot of time on the concept of bias. By now, nearly everybody agrees that the idea that journalists are unbiased is a myth — a fantasy created by those who need a sterile environment within which to sell advertising. It turns out people are people, whether they can write or not, and little things tend to give away what we’re really thinking.

Jay Rosen is one of those who consistently challenges us to do better. He has many little “isms,” but one stands out. He calls “the press” — and to an extent the Washington press corps — “the church of the savvy.” In Jay’s mind (and he’s most certainly correct here), the press tries to “hog realism to itself.” This is a fancy way of saying the press determines what is news and its accompanying narratives.

No where is this more evident, I believe, that with the sports press.

I’m going to confess up front here that I’m a Dallas Mavericks fan, and that perhaps it’s why I see things the way I see them. However, I think any honest examination of the facts will prove I’m right.

As of this writing, the Mavericks lead the Miami Heat three games to two in their best of seven NBA Finals. The Mavericks lead, but the national coverage is all about Miami. This is expected, I assume, because Miami’s triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh promised championships when they came together last summer. LeBron James, especially, is the object of everybody’s attention, because some sports writers have declared him the best to ever play the game. I don’t think so, but that’s irrelevant.

What’s irksome, however, is the worship of the Heat as “the reality” in this series. I even heard ESPN’s Colin Cowherd note on his show this week that the only team capable of beating the Miami Heat is the Miami Heat, and he was serious. Cowherd is known to be provocative, but this is the general consensus among the “savvy” who decide “the story” for everybody else.

After Thursday’s Mavericks’ win, Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press wrote: “Still, these finals are turning into what James isn’t doing, much more than what the Mavs are doing.” What?

“James with opportunity to define himself over upcoming two games’ was the headline of Ian Thomsen’s Sports Illustrated piece. “The Heat screwed up this series,” he penned, “by failing to protect a pair of big fourth-quarter leads, so now they have to live with the new realities.” Again, what?

Bernie Miklasz asked, “Will LeBron revert to attack mode?”

LeBron James apologist Daniel Barber of Yahoo Sports wrote, “In truth, LeBron has shown over and over again that despite how much everyone tries to paint him as something he isn’t, he’s a champion at heart.” He then goes on to add these incredible comments:

James is a humble man willing to praise his opponents even as they snidely call him an “actor” for doing only what they themselves do to an even greater degree even when they’re unjustified in doing so; complain about horrific calls and non-calls.

LeBron is a calm individual devoid of arrogance as he stoically handles villainous sports media talking heads who want to paint him as the villain at every turn. James is a team-first player who does whatever it takes to help his teammates succeed, while every pundit on the planet it seems vilifies him for “shrinking” and “disappearing” in crunch-time.

… Dallas is taking advantage of the officials calling these past three games so blatantly one-sided. Absolutely they finally hit their shots in Game 5—many of them such mind-boggling prayers you have to wonder if God himself is getting in on the act as well—but the referees literally allowing the Mavericks to foul James with impunity while almost never being whistled for a foul has taken him out of his game.

Has Barber not seen the YouTube video of James acting his way to the free throw line against Chicago and then winking at teammates after the call? Did he not see the call against Brendon Haywood resulting from James literally throwing himself out-of-bounds after he brushed against Haywood in game 4? Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle got a technical foul for complaining about that one.

So the question is if LeBron James is such an incredible player, why does he have to resort to acting to get to the free throw line?

I’m sorry, but the cumulative effect of all of these (and hundreds more) stories is that the Dallas Mavericks are an afterthought, even though they’re a game away from the ring.

Folks, let me tell you that the Mavericks have been a MUCH better team than anybody has given them credit for this year. They quietly go about their business and win. Nobody talks about the Mavs’ number two player, Caron Butler, sitting on the bench. We’re just NOT “the story” and that’s not right. When this series is over, regardless of who wins, I would wager that it will be LeBron James on the cover of the sports magazines, not Dirk Nowitzki.

The sports press says so, and that’s all that matters.

The lonesome valley of Tiger Woods

Tiger in the final round at FirestoneTiger Woods’ miserable performance at Firestone this week has all the usual suspects asking all the usual questions about the man. He shot the worst 72-hole score of his career, and finished second-to-the last in the field. His final score was 39 shots higher than the record he set at the tournament 10 years ago. It was nothing short of ugly, and the tour’s final major, the PGA, is next week.

Everybody wants to say (but doesn’t dare) that his sexual dalliances finally catching up with him was too big a psychological issue for even the stone-willed Tiger to overcome. His personal life in shambles, Tiger is hitting bottom, and that’s the sad outcome of such self-destructive behavior. He had it coming. So there.

As I’ve written before, of all the addictions, sexual addiction is the most misunderstood, because its subsequent behavior is so culturally reprehensible. What makes a man with everything and with perhaps the most recognizable face in the world think he can get away with a bevy of girlfriends outside his marriage? Those unfamiliar with sexual addiction can only point their judgmental fingers at Tiger and reason based on their own knowledge, their own perceptions, their own explanations of such behavior.

But addiction is an evil beyond the grasp of those who don’t know it. Reasons are irrelevant to the cure. Reasons don’t matter. What does matter is that the sickness that gripped this wonderful athlete and man is deep within his being. At core, he simply doesn’t like himself very much — in fact, can’t like himself — so it is impossible, without a LOT of work, for him to accomplish greatness for himself. Impossible.

I don’t think Tiger Woods will ever win again, until he’s found somebody to win for. That may end up being himself, but I think it’ll more likely be in the form of a new companion. As nuts as it might sound, Tiger’s immense skill was brought under control by his need to please women with whom he felt some form of bond. This is one of the curses of sexual addiction, a relentless chasing of the wind in attempts to please.

Why does he need to please? Because he doesn’t deem himself worthy of anything just as Tiger Woods. He must perform, and this isn’t a conscious thing. It is buried deep within him. And since pleasing others eventually runs into human nature, arguments or misunderstandings are exaggerated to the nth degree, and doors are forever closed. A simple “no” can be tantamount to betrayal. Disappointment becomes the rejection that he knows is at the end of every relationship, because that’s what he deserves.

This is the paradox of self-destructive behavior found in addicts.

You may think Tiger Woods the ultimate self-centered prick, and in ways that really matter, he is. But all addicts suffer real pain from a deep fear of rejection or abandonment, and relief from that is what the addict seeks.

In a very real sense, therefore, Tiger Woods was inspired by his lovers, all of them, and winning tournaments was his way of responding to that inspiration. He won for them, because he was incapable of winning for himself. You could say that he won for his dad, too, and that wouldn’t be far off.

But a man needs affirmation from a woman, and as an adult, that comes from relationships. Like all addicts, Tiger confused intensity with intimacy, and convinced himself that each of these women offered him their love.

This is the profoundly confused mind of the addict, and as I’ve watched Tiger try to get back to the top of his game since this all happened, I can’t help but think that perhaps he should have simply walked away from golf for a very long time, until he got to the place that we call “comfortable in his own skin,” because until that happens, he doesn’t have a clue about how to chase away the demons that haunt him.

He won’t win again until he has somebody to win for. Bank on it.

LeBron rant (only not what you’re expecting)

Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James beat the system by controlling it, and that’s what’s got everybody upset. You’re not allowed to do this, so, by Gawd, we’re going to punish you for it! I say “good for them.”

Miami celebrationLike most other Americans still breathing, I’ve followed the LeBron James business this week, and I really can’t believe what I’m reading. From Dan Gilbert to a hundred sports pundits, not one has spoken for me, and whenever that’s the case — because I think of myself as just normal — I start wondering why.

Here you have three friends who played together in the Beijing Olympics making an almost impossible pact that when they reached free agency, they would cement their friendship in a deal where they actually could play together again and again. In the day of loyalty only to the buck, I find that simply awesome. That story is completely lost in all the LeBron bashing of the last couple of days.

And what is that bashing about? It’s coming from people in the press who can’t handle the idea that any brand — personal or otherwise — could usurp their “right” to decide what’s important or, perhaps even more so, how events of this magnitude should be played out. I find that distasteful and hypocritical. When somebody demonstrates the temerity to challenge the press’s right to such decisions, everybody piles on the challenger as an ego-centric narcissist.

In a truly remarkable piece of spit-shined horseshit, E Online actually says this is “our” fault! That’s right. Us. You. Me. The audience. The fans. We’re the ones responsible for allowing this to happen. Allowing what to happen? Taking part in history? Because, folks, that’s exactly what it was, only it “wasn’t handled right,” whatever the hell that means? It was handled perfectly, and I’m frankly astonished at the criticism that James — and EPSN — are getting. Sport is spectacle, for crying out loud. It’s not friggin life?

Is LeBron James a manufactured idol? The jury’s still out here, but he’s one hell of a marketable basketball player. Does he need to win championships? Hell yes, but I think the whole league is going to have their hands full with this trio of superstars — each of whom took what amounts to a pay cut in order to play together — and I’m going to enjoy watching them do their thing. Count me among those who think they will win multiple championships. Pressure? Bring it on. These are three guys playing basketball, emphasis on playing.

I don’t think LeBron James deserves criticism for this, especially not from the press. His “decision” was the most watched show Thursday, as if that’s some indictment of the people who chose to watch it. I watched, and I thought it was great theater and great drama, but then I actually admit to watching “The Bachelor,” too. The fact that absolutely nothing else was on that night probably helped ratings, but the complaint really isn’t about ratings; it’s about someone challenging the status quo.

Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James beat the system by controlling it, and that’s what’s got everybody upset. You’re not allowed to do this, so, by Gawd, we’re going to punish you for it! I say “good for them.”

What James did Thursday night was rebellious, and that’s the problem. It challenged the league. It challenged the press. It challenged the way things used to be, and that’s what’s got so many people so upset. That three guys, three friends, three players can get together and concoct something like this is a remarkable example of where our culture finds itself today.

Long live the personal brand.

The making of a (new) media company

LeBron JamesSports fans of every stripe are waiting to see where LeBron James will play basketball next season. He’s the top of a free agent class that has NBA fans salivating over possibilities. “Where will King James play?” It’s the sports question of the summer, and James’ business interests demand that he drag it out until the last possible moment. That moment will apparently be tonight in a live televised “event” on ESPN at 9:00 EDT.

LeBron James is a brand, a (new) media brand, and his people are milking the attention for all they can get. It’s either a thing of beauty or a damning lesson in how people like James — on many, many levels — don’t need “the media” anymore to develop themselves into something far beyond what their athletic (or whatever) skills can take them.

James launched a Twitter account (KingJames) yesterday, and within two hours, had 130,000 followers. As of this writing, that number has ballooned to 300,000. People are following him in droves, because that’s what people do with celebrities and Twitter. Meanwhile, James is gathering fans unto himself. Here’s his new website, one that just happens to be launching at the same time.

LeBron James' new website

Note how cleverly the welcome page is written and how James is gathering a virtual army of names, email addresses and mobile phone numbers that he can do, well, anything with downstream.

The launch date is nearing for the online home of LeBron James and you can put yourself on the guest list!

Personally directed by LeBron, the new site will keep you up to speed on his actions off the court, his focus on strengthening the community and why “It will always be about more than basketball”.

Enter your e-mail address and mobile number to receive important announcements from LeBron. Get your information straight from the source, right when it happens.

It says nothing about where he’s going to play as it scoops up millions of bits of marketing data that can be used for just about anything. It promises nothing about basketball. Will fans care? I don’t think so, and LeBron James Inc. will be in the direct marketing business with both feet. In the future, LeBron’s team will be able to sell access to these people on a wide variety of topics, because they’ll get the messages “straight from the source, right when it happens.” Nice, huh? You think Nike won’t want to have LeBron send such messages to his fans on their behalf? What’s that worth?

This is both the new world and the new reality, and it’s only going to expand. Personal brands will grow in their importance and significance, and those people of talent who aren’t already advancing their own brands — especially those in positions of public visibility (like TV people) — are missing the real message that anybody can be a media company these days.

It’s the great disruptor of traditional media, for even the people formerly known as the advertisers are playing the game.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)

Can a Tiger shed its spots stripes?

As a man who’s had his own issues with “transgressions,” it would be hypocritical of me to judge Tiger Woods. Like me in the past, he’s been an asshole, and one hopes that he’s finally figured that out. I think that such a discovery is a part of the human experience. Hell, we’re all assholes in one form or the other. We try to overcome it, but sometimes, it just drags us down.

“O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

I have three thoughts this Friday evening. One, I thought it was a little odd for Tiger to lecture culture about the morality of his loss of privacy. I mean, didn’t he just give up the right to have anyone care about what he thinks, golf or otherwise?

Two, his father often said that Tiger’s ultimate contribution to society would be off the golf course. I don’t think this is what he meant (and I’m quite sure he’s not happy with his son), but who knows if this won’t lead to something enduring?

Three, this line from Jesper Parnevik, the man who introduced Tiger to his wife (and now regrets it), speaks volumes beyond Parnevik’s own emotions:

We thought better of him, but he is not the one we thought he was.

I think the public that Tiger Woods has worked so hard over the years to impress now generally feels the same way about the guy. Will we forgive him? I think that’s inevitable. Will he ever be “the one we thought he was?” Not a chance.

Behavior has consequences, and while Tiger may have been judging himself based on his intentions, the world sees it for what it really is — being an asshole.